We’ve experienced everything from the most basic hostels to luxury resorts while travelling in Asia. Gotten used to tiny bathrooms, some with just a shower over the floor, where drenching the toilet as you wash yourself is just part of the package. Dealt with bugs in the shower, sandflies in the bedroom, slept in rooms with windows, rooms where only the bathroom had a window, rooms with no windows at all.
Here’s some of the places that stood out.
SS City Hotel, Kuala Lumpur. Our little room was tiny but clean and in good condition, and a place we were more than happy to return to at night – just what we needed.
Hak’s House, Siem Reap. Admittedly a little far from the town centre (10-15 minutes on foot), it’s a quiet oasis with a decent free breakfast plus books and TV in the lounge.
Binh Duong 2 Hotel, Hue. Away from the backpacking street of Pham Ngu Lao, this wee hotel is still handy to everything. It’s right around the corner from a local market, close to the river, and within walking distance of plenty of eateries.
Pearl Suites Grand Hotel, Hanoi. Super friendly staff, tucked away down a quiet alley in the centre of the Old Quarter, free water, tea/coffee, and an awesome breakfast – what’s not to like?
Confession: I didn’t track those first four days in Malaysia. We were getting settled into travelling, using a lot of cash gifts from the wedding, and spent some on phone calls and taxis to meet with friends and family – but also had some meals covered by them. It was all a bit messy, in short.
I did, however, track our spending pretty closely from then on. Here are the Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam breakdowns.
Averaged out, that came to…
NZ $82.10 a day
Could you do it for cheaper? Yes, absolutely.
We weren’t out to spend as little as humanly possible. Our budget is more reflective of a flashpacker budget – frugal but not cheap, comfortable not stingy. Starting our trip in Asia meant we could be a little looser with the purse strings and have a bit of a honeymoon phase before entering bona fide backpacker mode in the Northern Hemisphere.
Food varied widely – anything from $1-2 street food/pastries to $5 meals at restaurants. If you eat like a bird and don’t mind eating noodles for breakfast, you can probably get by on $3-6 each a day . If, like us, you have a normal to large appetite, you’ll spend more – potentially a lot more. (That said, portions aren’t uniform. Some are so small you could practically inhale a bowl in one go; others are reasonably sized, though in most cases I was left wanting more.)
We love food, so we were happy to splurge quite often. There were plenty of fruit smoothies, milkshakes, fizzy, and sugarcane purchases. (Don’t forget about drinks – you’ll spend a couple bucks on water every day, and you won’t want to miss out on the fresh fruit drinks in Asia. The cheap alcohol tempted even us non-drinkers into a few mixers throughout Thailand and Vietnam.) There were treats like cake, snacks, and ice cream from time to time. But our food expenditure really went up in Vietnam, because T got sick multiple times there, and after the first time, was (understandably) wary of street food. From then on, he stopped eating soup – which is, of course, the staple in Vietnam) – favouring starches and solid stuff, and mostly ate in restaurants rather than on the street. I still ate street food at least once a day, though.
Transport wise, we mainly travelled overland. Train, bus, minivan … We used public transport a few times, but most of the time, it was taxis or tuktuks. They’re convenient, not too expensive, and most of all, more comfortable for T, especially for journeys where we were lugging our packs around.
We took it slow in Vietnam, spreading our time out over more than a fortnight. I actually wish we’d returned to Thailand earlier and perhaps fitted in a visit to Chiang Mai, but flights were cheapest early in the week, and I wanted to book well in advance in order to lock in good rates.
I’m also going to include spending for our last couple of days in Asia, which were spent back in Bangkok.
June 19 – $46.22 (including shared taxis and meals out with our CS hosts; again, free accommodation)
June 18 – $57.28 (including transport to and from airports. Free accommodation through Couchsurfing)
June 17 – $56.64
June 16 – $15.72 (drinks, etc, aboard the Halong Bay tour, the only exclusions in the price)
June 15 – $40.55
June 14 – $273.33 (including tickets for overnight Halong Bay cruise)
June 13 – $44.94
June 12 – $34.49
June 11 – $31.42
June 10 – $77.05 (including sleeper bus tickets from Hue to Hanoi)
June 9 – $71.92 (including motorbike and fuel)
June 8 – $73.96 (including motorbike rental and fuel)
June 7 – $77.95 (including transport from Hoi An back to Danang)
June 6 – $44.55
June 5 – $38.73
June 4 – $65.34 (including transport to Hoi An from Danang)
June 3 – $184.93 (including sleeper train tickets up to Danang)
June 2 – $97.51
June 1 – $64.29
May 31 – $48.11
May 30 – $40.92
May 29 – $33.12
There were some expensive days (e.g. Halong Bay tour and restaurant splurges, especially in the very internationalised Ho Chi Minh) and some cheap ones (particularly while T was sick and not eating much). Overall, though, Vietnam was still a very frugal destination – especially now that we look back on it through a European lens…
It seems like an awesome idea. Travel while you’re sleeping – covering precious ground AND saving on a night in a hostel. Depending on the journey, a bus ticket might cost next to nothing – perhaps as much as a bed would. What’s not to like? If you suffer from poor sleep, you’re not alone. As many as 25% of Americans have acute insomnia. But about 75% of those people recover, discover other types of sleep aids aromatherapy is an ancient practice still used today test it.
What are sleeper buses?
Sleeper buses may not be as comfortable or convenient as sleeper trains, but they’re a hell of a lot cheaper. Expect anything from upright seats that hardly recline to bunk berths with either fixed or adjustable angled seat/headrest and juuust enough flat legroom for a small to average-sized person.
Behold, a fairly nice sleeper bus in Vietnam:
What to bring on a sleeper bus
There’s only one thing that is an absolute must in my books: Something to cover the velcro on the headrests. As you can imagine, it’s rather painful when that stuff sticks to your hair. A scarf or spare shirt will do the trick. (This doesn’t seem to apply to Vietnam buses, but on budget sleeper buses in Thailand and Cambodia, watch out…)
A sleep mask, if light bothers you. You probably won’t have control over the aisle lights, and other passengers in nearby seats might keep their personal ceiling lights on or inexplicably decide to start snapping photos of each other, sending camera flashes richocheting around inside.
Earplugs, if you’re sensitive to noise. Sometimes your fellow passengers will have zero interest in sleeping (though hopefully they’ll turn their headphones way down). Some will snore or sleeptalk. Once in a while your driver might think it’s a good idea to blast dance music at top volume. You just never know.
Are sleeper buses worth it?
Well, you save on a night’s accommodation, but sometimes it evens out. You’ll never get as good a night’s rest as you would in a real bed. Worst case scenario, you spend the rest of the day crashed out in your next room, recovering from the journey.
If, like me, you can sleep anywhere and are on a tight budget (or timeframe), then sleeper buses might be the way to go. It’s really a matter of priorities. Since I’m travelling with T, who’s about three times my size, we’ve learned to go for more comfortable options if possible.
In Thailand, I would go for the train; the price difference is negligible. In Cambodia there are no trains, but you could opt for a daytime bus journey instead. In Vietnam, the train is so much more expensive that I’d say buses are probably worth the savings (or, if you’re pressed for time, flights are not much more than train tickets).
Google, Google, Google
The best way to ease the journey? Use a reputable bus line!
Research the best bus companies for your chosen route and go direct to their office. Booking a seat through your hotel or a random travel agent can be risky; who knows what random, scruffy bus line you might end up on.
The good ones tend to provide blankets and water and communicate clearly when there’s a rest stop or when the final stop is imminent; others nothing at all.
Vietnam is a polarising destination. Without exception, I’ve found friends, couchsurfers, and bloggers either adore the country (rare), or found it a disappointment (the majority).
I get it. It’s understandable why some find Vietnam underwhelming.
Getting sick at some point seems par for the course. That can easily sour your experience, logical or not.
Getting ripped off is also part of the deal. Be it paying twice the highest amount listed on the side of the food cart (while the tourist couple ahead of you were only charged a 50% premium) … or getting charged a different price for the exact same item at the exact same shop by the exact same person on different days … or that pause when a random stallholder throws out a price no doubt conjured out of thin air – probably the highest number they think they can extract from you. But hey, are you really going to quibble over a few cents here, a dollar there?
For all that, though, I’m in the first camp.
Scenes from the Reunification Palace
I’d decided I liked Vietnam already by the time we got off the bus.
The drivers seemed to stick to their side of the road most of the time. The heat in Ho Chi Minh seemed downright mild after Cambodia. And our bus stopped exactly where it was supposed to stop, just a few doors down from our hostel.
I don’t know if that’s because we travelled with a good bus company or if it’s simply a function of arriving during the day. We’d previously always arrived at dawn, when it was still dark or close to it. Result: a busload of disoriented passengers, ripe for scammage from local drivers. Here, just a few drivers clustered around the doorway, and half-hearted would be too kind a word to describe their sales efforts.
Admittedly, Vietnam isn’t the most welcoming country for tourists. Visas are required for most nationalities, and they’re expensive. English signs/menus are few and far between, though I actually really like and respect that.
What really elevated the experience for me was the people – the friendly hotel staff in Hoi An, Hue, and Hanoi (not Saigon, though) and the equally friendly couchsurfers we met all through the country. While not many are in a position to host visitors, most are eager to meet up for a coffee or to show you around. Heck, most seem to use Couchsurfing to meet travellers at the local meetups and practise their English – in Hue, I found a local student through her post offering herself up as a free tour guide to tourists. If it weren’t for them, I don’t think I would have rated Vietnam quite so highly. It made all the difference. Little things, like learning what the giant red building you pass every morning is (their high school), or their instinctively taking your arm to guide you across the road, because even after two weeks of acclimatising, getting from one side to the other is still a scary proposition.
Monkeying around at Halong Bay
As for the eating, I found Vietnamese food surprisingly enjoyable, and downright sublime in some of the central regions. I didn’t really know what to expect, and I was pleasantly surprised by the subtle yet full-bodied soups.
That said, two weeks was enough. Enough of the noodles, the traffic, the sickness, the heat, all of it. I must admit we did very few of the typical touristy things in Vietnam, but I still feel I got as much out of it as I could. (I don’t say ‘we’, because the whole country was a bit of a bust for T, who was under the weather for most of the time.)
No, Vietnam wasn’t the easiest, but it was a one-of-a-kind experience, and I’m thrilled to have the memories.
2000 islands in Halong Bay – the mind boggles. The varying shades of mountain give you an indication of distance
The Amazing Cave, which well and truly lives up to its name.
The low season is the off season because it’s wet. We travelled in May/June, which was still very dry. You might get anything from odd showers through to heavy rain. We found that rain didn’t seem to last very long, though – usually a few hours at most. Apart from one big storm in southern Thailand, it hardly rained during our trip at all.
A lot of places close down during the quiet season, which is a bummer. While stuck in Krabi between transfers, I went wandering through the town looking for food. To say that there wasn’t a lot to choose from would be an understatement. Luckily, I stumbled across the local markets and picked up a clam curry, fried veggie fritters and some coconut treats.
We also found that the boats between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh weren’t running, leaving us no choice but to catch a bus – a bit disappointing, since I’d hoped to get a taste of river travel that way.
With all that said, aside from south Thailand, it was still incredibly busy everywhere we went. Bangkok was bustling, Angkor Wat was packed, and Halong Bay was pretty darn crowded too – I can’t imagine what it would be like in peak season.
We didn’t know exactly where we were going when we stepped off the train in Hue.
I did know that we should head straight into town, which was just a few minutes away, and find ourselves a place to stay. After dodging a few taxi/moto drivers, we paused to adjust our backpacks. That’s when a couple of young guys approached us with a card, encouraging us to come and check out their hotel. “No obligation,” they reiterated several times. Hardened from a month of travel, I was sceptical. Nothing is free!
But for all their exhortations to “come and have a look” at their cheap, centrally located hotel, complete with free transfer, T made the call to go along with them. Into their minivan we went, and surprisingly, it paid off.
At the Binh Duong 2, we stayed in style. For US$12, we enjoyed a huge room opening onto a private balcony with table and seats, a king bed, a bathtub, air con and ceiling fan, even crown moulding. Pretty solid.
As for Hue itself? It was a little dull, to be honest. We decided to skip the DMZ stuff and just check out the Imperial City and a tomb (Tu Duc). There were walks along the riverside, rides over the bridge and around town, a brief beach excursion, a morning at the local shopping centre and some confusion around the parking protocol.
Along with a couple of local Couchsurfers (who backed up our view that the Citadel etc were somewhat underwhelming), I also got to sample amazing local coffee and fresh fruit smoothies, and wander around a bucolic temple hidden away amongst a bush setting, where we spotted a group of monks halfway through a game of soccer.
All in all, a good place to wind down and take it easy.
You might be in two minds about Hoi An, dithering about whether it’s worth a stop or not. After all, it’s not the easiest town to get to.
Sure, there are open tour buses that stop there, and fares are crazy cheap – maybe $10 – but the horror stories online, combined with your experience of long distance bus rides and what you’ve seen so far of Vietnamese roads, might seriously put you off.
The train from Saigon to nearby Danang doesn’t come cheap, at more than $50 a ticket, and a berth split with two elderly Vietnamese women who don’t look overly impressed by having to share with these foreigners and spend most of their time ‘whispering’ to each other. (It’s okay; we have no idea what you’re saying, so covering up your mouths and speaking into each other’s ears without dropping the volume one notch makes zero difference, ladies.) But at least it’s comfortable, and that is (almost) priceless for your 6’2 husband.
Then there’s actually getting to Hoi An from the train station. As per usual, we seem to be travelling the wrong way; the trip to Hoi An apparently costs twice what it would if you were travelling from Hoi An. I’d armed myself with all the information I could find about catching the cheap public bus, but with comfort and convenience in mind, we end up forking over $20 for a taxi.
Once you reach Hoi An, though? It’s completely, unquestioningly worth it.
True, while the ancient buildings have been physically preserved yet turned into rows of “same same” (to borrow a phrase) shops, there’s still an overarching old world charm that permeates.
Women (always women) presiding over their clothing shops and restaurants. Dogs ambling down the streets, or sitting dead still on the sidewalks. Vibrant galleries and bins of broken porcelain. Soothing music piped through the streets, punctuated by late afternoon public announcements that the motorbike ban is about to end.
Cheap delicious food abounds, especially the local specialty, cao lau (noodles). Oddly, the eateries seem to either embrace you, doing all they can to reel you in, or practically ignore you, leaving you to find your own seat and wait 10 minutes for service.
At night, they come out to play. The bridge is a beacon in the dark, packed with tourists jostling for photos and local kids on blades and bikes. Candles, lanterns, and portraits for sale all along the riverbank. Public performances at the corner pavilion. Music from the moored boats, where you might be able to make out singalongs to old English tunes.
It’s all a show, really, but it doesn’t make it any less magical.
My Hoi An recommendations
Where to stay
Phuong Dong Hotel. Book directly through the website. It’s inexpensive yet clean and airy, located reasonably close to the action. Our last hotel in Saigon was meant to have a bathtub but didn’t; finding one in our room here was an unexpected surprise.
Where to drink
Buy drinks from street stalls, your room fridge, even restaurants. For some reason, water, fizzy, and iced tea actually costs more at the minimarts.
We also found a bar along the riverside that sold 65,000 dong cocktail buckets (under $4). Bargain.
Where to eat
Tran Cao Van is home to Lucky Cafe, which is run by Aussie NGO MAD Indochina and works with Vietnamese youth, serving up a mix of Western and Asian food. The menu is massive, though I really only went there for bacon baguettes on T’s behalf.
Across the road, you’ll find the Banh Mi queen, Madam Khanh, who claims to be the best in Hoi An. I went straight there and never had banh mi anywhere else. Freaking fantastic. And for some reason, I got extra meat added to mine after they found out I was from Malaysia. The downside? You won’t be able to stomach banh mi in any other town afterward – inferior versions that don’t hold a candle to the Madam’s.
Around the corner on Thai Phien are some streetside food stalls. I tried two different ones, both of which served up amazing bowls of fresh noodles. Take a look, see what tickles your fancy.
Toward the river, Trung Bac on Tran Phu was also excellent, and be sure to grab a scoop of homemade ice cream at the Art Cafe and Pizzeria right on the waterfront.
It all started when we packed up our house back home. Moving, I find, always generates a lot of waste. Wasted food, or perhaps wasted money spent on eating out during moving. And, of course, all the stuff that you never quite got around to throwing out, that now urgently needs to be disposed of.
Then there was the flying. The packaged meals, the individually wrapped blankets and headphones and anything else you can think of.
After that, we hit Asia, where waste disposal is a work in progress. We don’t have nearly enough public recycling bins on the streets at home, but at least some exist. Not so here. The amount of water bottles alone that must pile up is mind boggling.
As we travelled through Thailand, we saw too many dumps, recyclable materials all mixed in. On Koh Lanta, one of the quieter islands, there was detritus right on the shoreline, marring an otherwise picturesque setting. Rubbish piles randomly dotted the pavements, next to dwellings, even.
Simply by way of being there, we were further bound to add to it all, with our countless empty water bottles (recyclable! At home, at least) and our plastic containers from our (very few) takeaway meals. I really feel that making the tap water drinkable would make an immense difference – both in terms of the health benefits of clean drinking water for all, and in terms of the plastic saved.
Worst of all was when we embarked on a whirlwind four-island day trip, culminating with lunch on the picturesque and remote Koh Ngai, the remains of which would either probably be dumped somewhere there or ferried over to a larger island to be dumped.
In Koh Lanta I briefly spotted a sign tucked down a quiet alley in the township – something about supporting the island’s first recycling facility with the Skip bin hire Perth. The sooner the better, or there may not be a whole lot left worth preserving.
But hey, at least I’ve finally used up all my sample size shampoos/moisturisers. Those sachets have finally been put to good use on our travels.
Steamboat style lunch in Hat Yai (restaurant in the Robinson’s mall). SO MANY KINDS OF MUSHROOMS!
Larb gai (minced meat salad) from a roadside stall in Phra Ae, Koh Lanta.
Thai stirfry and green curry at The Tavern, Koh Lanta.
As it turns out, we were stationed in a pretty good spot at Phra Ae. Palm Beach is down a driveway with about four other resorts, and emerges onto the street among some street stalls and very close to some good eateries. I enjoyed rice and noodles at 50 baht a pop (about $2), for example. Credit also to:
the very good Indian restaurant, which I THINK was called Little Indra, advertising 15% off while we were there
The Tavern, a restaurant/bar that serves good western AND Thai food at reasonable prices (T thrived on the big breakfast – 180 baht) and I can recommend – surprisingly – the nachos and stuffed potatoes. Take advantage of their specials, too – we feasted on a banquet of spring rolls, fish cakes, stir fry and curry for 299 baht on our last night.
Tom yum kung hotpot on Soi Rambuttri, Khao San Rd area, Bangkok.
Spring rolls at The Blue Pumpkin, Siem Reap.
Noodles with barbecued pork in Hue.
Fried wontons at Trang Buc in Hoi An.
Hoi An, surprisingly, captured my foodie heart. From the cao lau to my quang (both traditional local noodle dishes) to com ga (chicken rice) and white rose (shrimp dumplings), good eats were to be found everywhere in this tiny town. I could have easily gotten used to wandering over to the street stalls every morning for a bowl of noodles, followed by a spicy banh mi around the corner. I rarely carried my DSLR on these outings.
That said, I don’t think any cuisine will ever surpass Malaysian for me. Laksa. Nasi lemak. Sugarcane. Ais kacang. Soya milk. Sometimes the stuff of childhood will simply never be usurped.